The Larder's A to Z of reasons to eat local

  • The Larder
  • 1 May 2009


– someone who does skilled work with their hands. Around Scotland there are many cheesemakers, bakers, brewers and other food producers who can be described as artisan, most of them working on a small scale and aiming to produce a high quality, individual product.


– the Scottish tradition of baking is a strong one, with baps, bannocks, butteries, bridies, oatcakes, pies, tarts and cakes regarded as a distinctive but very homely aspect of our historic food culture. While most of our bread is produced in ‘plant’ or ‘industrial’ bakeries, small, artisan craft bakers are returning to our cities and villages too – a good sign of a healthy attitude to real food.


– this isn’t just the domain of celebrity chefs, but a crucial – and creative – partner to eating and living well. Simple, practical, day-to-day cooking has few better starting points than fresh, tasty, interesting local food.


– the efficiency with which food moves from where it’s produced to where it’s bought is a critical factor in how and what we eat. However, distribution needn’t always be about large articulated lorries moving between different hubs: farmers’ markets are a form of distribution, as are veg box delivery schemes, and the Royal Mail.


– local food is intimately connected to the environment. This is especially the case in a place such as Scotland where natural purity is an important element of our food and drink production. From farming practices to food miles there’s a need for environmental awareness throughout the food chain, not least in the realisation that a re-localisation of food may soon become a necessity rather than simply a choice.


– a fundamental part of Scotland’s food heritage and current economic make-up. The many different forms of fishing in Scotland, including deep-sea trawling, inshore creeling and aquaculture, are increasingly wrapped up in debates and initiatives concerning the sustainability of stocks and the appropriateness of fish farming systems.


– around three quarters of the global food and drink industry is controlled by just 200 companies. None of these are Scottish owned. However, being part of a globalised food economy doesn’t necessarily mean Scotland has to be subjugated by it.


– like hand-made, this is a tag indicating care and craft rather than industrial efficiency. But they have no legal definition; you have to trust the person using the term.


– getting to know about a food product isn’t simply a case of reading the label. Direct contact with a food producer, or through a close intermediary such as a shopkeeper, is a great way to discover information, as is a visit to the place where the food is produced. Useful information can come from other sources too – cooking tips from a book or a friend can help you to get to know a product.


– except for exotic foods such as spices, coffee, chocolate and some fruits, it seems a bit of an anathema for food to spend long periods in transit. In the case of livestock sent to slaughter, long journeys can cause distress to the detriment of animal welfare and the taste of the meat.


– whether domestic or professional, these are key places in the journey from field to fork. Here simple produce is converted into dishes and meals that nourish us and – ideally – are enjoyable too. Good produce is the bedrock of good eating, but it’s cooking that really entrenches our relationship with good food.


– what does it actually mean? On the one hand, many of us regard food from Scotland as local. But if you live in Edinburgh, Stilton cheese (made near Nottingham) is about as locally produced as Grimbister (in Orkney). Localness is partially bound up in identity – recognising where something has come from, and partially in practicality – why should we need to look further to obtain certain products.


– farmers’ markets are one of the principal points of contact for genuinely local food produced by small-scale farms and businesses. Although they’re regarded as a recent phenomenon (they began in Scotland as farmers sought a way to recover from the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001), the simple fact is that they’re a return to a very obvious economic reality: food grown locally being sold to the closest available customers.


– food has much to offer in its natural state. After all, the miracles of nature create much of our food, and plenty of it at that. A good deal of Scotland’s best food benefits from its close connections to nature, a purity and wildness that isn’t much found in other parts of Europe.


– a system of farming that aims to work with natural systems rather than dominate them by encouraging natural biological cycles in soil, plants and animals and avoiding the use of agro-chemical inputs. Other key principles include animal welfare, the avoidance of pollution, the protection and encouragement of the natural environment including wildlife and a consideration for the wider social and ecological impact of farming.


– public food procurement – food bought using government funds for schools, hospitals, prisons and other institutions – is worth £85 billion in Scotland each year, so has a massive influence on the country’s food and drink economics. Should public procurement always seek best ‘value’ (the lowest prices) or be seen as a means of supporting local food production?


– a word commonly used in food production, retail and marketing. Local food, or organic food, or food from small producers, is not necessarily better quality than mass produced food, but on the whole small, local and artisan producers will strive for a higher quality than mass-produced equivalents.


– while we tend to talk about Scottish food under a single identity, the truth is that most well-developed food cultures still nurture regionality as a key aspect of diversity, tradition and distinctiveness. Different growing conditions, soils, vegetation and climate exist in different regions of Scotland, which inevitably creates difference in food produced in these areas. Other places describe it as terroir. A greater awareness and respect for these different identities is a sign of a maturing food culture.


– the annual cycle of different local foods coming in and out of season before our eyes would have been fundamental to everyone who lived on this planet up until the last quarter of a century. It remains engrained in many of our traditions and feasts, yet the surfeits, delights and desire-inducing droughts created by the seasonality of food have been clouded by the remarkable availability of all foods 12 months of the year. Seasonal eating is very much a part of local eating, and of being tuned into the rhythms and bounty of the world around us.


– the transition to less fossil fuel dependency, as championed by the ‘Transition Towns’ movement. In the future we will be obliged (by the price of fuel, and by shifting government policy) to refocus on what’s local to us. If we can grow food locally, why do we need to get it from further afield? At the moment the answer to that is cost and convenience. The cost equation will change, however, not just as fuel becomes more expensive, but if local production is stepped up then the supply and demand equation will allow local prices to become more competitive.


– Scotland is unique in many ways: in its culture, history, geography and people, most obviously. What about its food? Certain aspects of Scottish food are unique, but Scotland’s food culture as a whole has yet to impose its mark on the nation’s identity.


– too often ‘good value’ is seen as synonymous with cheapness. Value, however, considers quality alongside relative cost. Local food often doesn’t carry the same transportation costs and overheads as imported food, so a higher percentage of the cost of the food can be allocated to the item itself. Also, value isn’t just a monetary thing: there are also cultural, environmental and human values to consider in the food we buy.


– whether for animals, human or communities, an important consideration in local food production. Many standards of animal welfare apply, including organic systems, free-range and specific schemes relating to different farming practices.


– food waste at most stages of the food chain, from entire crops being rejected by grocery buyers to mouldy carrots in the fridge, is a standard feature of the way we handle food today. It is argued that smaller-scale food systems produce less unrecycled waste and in households too, food bought more thoughtfully from a local supplier is more likely to be used up with care.


– children today grow up in a very different food culture to that of their grandparents. There’s more food around, but less awareness of where it comes from and fewer cooking and food handling skills.


– ‘the spirit of the age’. We are moving from a time when small and local was thought of as meaning insignificant and inferior. In this age small and local can be key pointers towards quality and distinctiveness.

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